For me, the most edifying experience of writing this book has been the success of the virtual cafe, which was used to get feedback as I wrote the chapters. It was devised as a solution to the frustrations I'd had when trying to develop new ideas within the environment of Internet email discussion forums.
Internet email forums are without doubt the most exciting and revolutionary phenomena to emerge from the Internet. Groups of hundreds of people join together to meld minds, share knowledge and transfer information. Anyone belonging to these groups taps into a dynamic information service, a continuous up-to-date news bulletin, a fountain of new ideas and inspiration. Without any doubt at all, the membership of such email groups bestows upon any individual a massive competitive advantage - even when working in the conventional world of bricks and mortar - because they provide a virtual backup of hundreds of advisors and assistants to help them with any problems they encounter.
The most useful and valuable are the email forums that are narrowly focused around a single theme: a specific area of technology; a computer application environment; a business niche; a hobby or an interest. These forums tend to be self regulating with strong pressures brought to bear upon anyone deviating from the main subject theme. This self regulation improves the information to noise ratio, allowing useful knowledge to be transferred with better efficiently.
The essential and valuable feature of group self regulation has a downside though: the regulation that is so effective at reducing noise, also excludes any attempts to extend the envelope of the group's activity. Radical ideas, new directions are quickly crushed out of existence just as ruthlessly as inconsequential drivel. This is as it should be, as most of the new ideas and new directions introduced into list serve forums do tend to be inconsequential drivel anyway.
There are Internet forums that do try to cater for speculative ideas, but, they soon become either too noisy to be worth the time to read the contributions, or, dominated by a small clique who confine the discussions to within their own area of opinion. Usually, such groups need a regulator to selectively control the postings. But, by definition, contributions that are confined to the limitations of whatever a regulator regards as interesting defeats the purpose of a having a group free to explore speculative ideas.
My personal experience of trying to explore new ideas within Internet discussion forums has been far from satisfactory; often ending up in flame wars and sometimes even getting me thrown off of lists. It was no better when I started my own email discussion forum after writing the book "Magical A-Life Avatars". There, I was in a position to set the subject area (which was to explore the open source potential of multimedia run time engines to create intelligent agents). Yet, the combined efforts of a few determined posters made it impossible for me to have any real influence and the discussions took off in a direction quite different from what I had in mind. In trying to bring the discussion around to the original intention, I was hounded out of my own discussion forum.
The problem appears to be that everyone has built into their minds a personally unique model of the world with which they interpret events and information. They like new ideas to easily slot into this personal framework of thought and if a new idea necessitates a completely new mind set, or, requires a sharp paradigm shift, it is often rejected out of hand. This is a natural and quite sensible way to approach the acceptance of new ideas, as to be open and receptive to any new idea that comes along runs the risk of de-stabilizing an entire thinking process. This presents a problem for anyone with a new idea because to the rest of the world they are indistinguishable from cranks - which of course they might be.
This is the problem I had when I came to write this book. I thought I had some good ideas, but, so do many people in lunatic asylums. How can you tell you tell whether or not you are a loony? There is only one way, that is to test the ideas out with sane and rational people who can judge them against their own experiences in the world. But what if nobody listens to you?
The list serves are impossible places to make such tests because the barrage of protests from the more dogmatic subscribers distort or flame out any attempt at rational explanation. Then I remembered how I'd worked with ideas in the world of bricks and mortar. I'd used cafes and wine bars. I'd arrange to meet various different groups of people for informal discussions where we'd bounce ideas off of each other, discuss theories, business ideas and plans. Providing the groups stayed small and intimate, great progress could be made without undue noise.
At the same time I'd picked up a book on communication strategies within large corporations. It pin pointed 'meetings' as being critically important nodes within a communication infra structure. The book stated that long experience had shown that the optimum size of such nodal meetings should be between seven to nine people. With these thoughts in mind, I created a virtual cafe where I could arrange virtual meetings with a wide variety of different people, splitting them up into small efficient groupings.
With these smaller grouping, the issue of noise was a much lesser problem. More radical ideas could be discussed because they didn't have to conform to the common denominators of a large mixed population. Differences could be discussed rationally and not clouded by many different viewpoints all seeking a common ground.
The greatest advantage was in being able to separate out the different mind sets. For example, the way in which a teacher views the world is quite different from that of say an entrepreneur; discussions quickly disintegrate into arguments if the backgrounds and outlooks on life are too disparate. Similarly, the way in which a specialist expert such as a programmer or a graphic designer interacts with the business environment is quite different from that of say a manager of a large project or a sales person. Being able to separate out these different mind sets, by placing them at different tables, I was able to avoid semantic arguments and at the same time get a range of different perspectives applied to the ideas.
Each grouping in its own way added new dimensions to the ideas. Also, ideas that were acceptable in one perspective but not in another could be identified and given alternative explanation in the book (which is why some ideas seem to be repeated in different forms and why everyone will have objections to some parts of the book).
To explain and describe the dynamics of this process in detail would probably take another book, but, by way of example as to how this virtual cafe worked, there follows just a few of the hundreds of emails that resulted from this process while writing this book.
(In fact, there were so many possible good examples I could have chosen from, I had to have some criterion for selection. So, I decided to take this opportunity to add some balance to the book by using those that touched upon more contentious issues. In this way, I could perhaps compensate a little for some of the black and white treatment I've been forced to take, for the sake of brevity, in some of the more controversial areas.)
I started the cafe with around fifty people. I used a random generator to decide who was at which table as I had no idea as to what would be the best way to decide the mixing. Some tables worked well with an immediate empathy developing within the groups. At others there were only cautious attempts at discussion. At one table there was a stony silence and at another things went disastrously wrong. This latter table I thought of as "the table from hell"
A problem, which nearly all the readers were puzzled by, was my unconventional approach to book writing. It seemed inconceivable that I would begin to write a book where I had no idea as to what would turn out to be the final conclusions. It took several chapters before most of them cottoned on to the idea that this was a dynamic process and they were part of the process of arriving at the conclusions.
This was particularly a problem at my "table from hell". I discovered subsequently that the tone of a table's mood was usually set by the first one or two emails. A strongly negative first reaction put the whole table in a negative mood, with discussions rapidly descending into nit-picking; a positive first reaction usually resulted in an animated discussion: not only on the chapter in question, but, on speculations on where the book was heading.
At the "table from hell", the first two posters were both negative, one of whom was a university professor who objected to the whole approach of the first two chapters. He was challenged by a high school drop out, who'd gone on to become an exceptionally talented, first class hacker. A sample an email follows, where the hacker (Ian Morrison, well known on the UK Director user's list as a sardonic baiter of any kind of pomposity) tears into the university lecturer's previous post a point at a time:
>A lot of the analogies drawn from Peter's life to e-commerce are pretty hairy to me.
Define hairy. I think it's a stupid word to use in this context.
> The poker example Peter gave is familiar to most people with experience - it just illustrates the inter-dependence of things. This is where the concept breaks down - it assumes situations where we are all in competition, and there is a "best" way or answer.
Anyone who thinks we are not in competition is either naive or stupid. Everything we do in life is to clock up points. The only reason we exist is to carry forward our own DNA, and to destroy anything that interferes with that. With such dramatic orders, competition is what we thrive and rely upon.
> In a poker game the group does not "win", as the group has the same amount of money at the end.
This suggests that the only reason for playing poker is for money. I'd differ to the point of personal insult.
> The lesson of the Internet is not how we can use it, but that if we all work together everyone can win.
People don't want to work together. People want to get rich without effort; I refer you back to Peter's son who just wanted to get the work done, and be gone. Collaborating with his father, despite the potential for learning (and insanity), was rejected because it's easier to learn for ourselves rather than trusting someone's pre-chewed knowledge.
> The Internet is the first big example of how the profit motive can be bypassed. It is a wonderful thing in that regard.
Wake up. The rose ink on your spectacles is going to run onto your bank statement if you're not careful. The internet is the most disgusting example of commercially driven motives since commercial television. The net is used to not only bombard consumers with products, but also to stalk and categorise them. The day I can leave cookies enabled in my browser, and not shoot though a junkbuster proxy is the day I accept that the internet is a wonderful thing for negating profit.
> My personal view is that this misses the big picture. Its not about u_s_i_n_g the net, its about being part of it. Something is happening alright, but its not this. For example could it be the internet is the beginning of people realising the limitations of doing things only for personal profit.
Yes, mate. And we're all running Linux too, aren't we. Free the software, yadda yadda yadda.
> These ideas are interesting, but not ground breaking. Suggest start again and think things through a little better.
Wise words, if words were ever wise, from the wise man himself on practice as preach, and lack of therein.
I soon learned to split people up in a way that avoided such culture clashes.
Descending into chaos
Originally, Chapter 3 had contained a long mathematical description of Chaos Theory. It sparked off some extended theoretical discussions on one table, where I had a disagreement with somebody over the meaning of chaos. He wrote:
If you really feel the need to put me straight on deterministic chaos, perhaps we should continue at a separate table? I fear that even an elementary discussion of such topics as phase trajectories, degrees of liberty, aperiodic oscillators, strange attractors, fractal dimensions, Hopf bifurcations, Fourier spectrums, Floquet matrices and so on is hardly appropriate at a table dedicated to the discussion of Chapter 3.
I declined the offer. But, as many people had commented that a mathematical description of Chaos Theory was out of keeping with the established tone of the book. I asked everyone in the cafe for their opinions on this. It was voted out. I asked everyone then whether or not it should be included as an appendix. Jackie Kleinschmidt wrote:
Peter wrote: "I've decided to take the section on chaos out of chapter 3. The question is: "Should I include it in the book at all?" Does anyone (apart from me) think a rough idea as to what chaos theory is about is necessary? My latest thinking on this is to include it as an appendix. Does anyone have any views on this. Should I just leave it out altogether?"
I think you could leave it out altogether, Peter, at least any attempt to explain chaos theory per se. You could make the same observations in ordinary lay terms just as well, and maybe even more clearly. From the whole chapter, what struck me was not anything you said about chaos theory specifically, but the observations you made about seemingly chaotic things and "zen-ness"
I did leave it out, deciding this description should go on my Web site rather in the book (http:www.avatarnets.com/ewbook/chaos).
Using black and white caricatures, mixed with tongue in the cheek humour didn't go down well with some readers, particularly the corporates. At one table a poster wrote:
For example, the aborted 'green frog' lecture on evolutionary design was brilliantly told. The reader gains insight into the perspective of the author, who is transformed into a sympathetic, likable character during his ill-fated consulting gig. Further, it reveals volumes about the cultural rift between the author's mouth and the corporate ear.
Although this failure to communicate is initially hilarious, it begins to hinder the author's credibility when he confronts the same misunderstanding with an academic. The academic is open to the author's radical ideas, and asks only that the author articulate these ideas. The author responds by launching into a critique that alienates all potential readers -- corporate workers, software users, and academics.
Paragraph after paragraph of sarcasm and other rhetoric follow. Most of it misses the mark, and insults the target audience of a book about E-commerce. By creating a stereotype of the corporate mind as obsessed with avoiding complexity and risk, he is only reiterating what the green frog story so clearly displayed: the author is taking an extremely limited view of the business world.
A better strategy is to make fun of the worst of the worst, while also highlighting the best practices. This gives the reader a chance to side with the winners, and it gives the author a chance to avoid the impossible task of defending dozens of generalizations against waves of real business innovations, past and present.
Even more importantly, this technique bolsters credibility by showing how the author's ideas helped create the Internet Economy. He can take advantage of the brilliant people and courageous corporate minds that overcame the worst of the worst corporate inhibitors.
In fact, my intention had been to illustrate the different ways in which some corporations were missing out on e-commerce opportunities by letting Industrial Age attitudes handicap them. It was written in a way that I thought was a humourous, over the top caricature. Unfortunately, the humour didn't seem to get through to some people and I had to drastically tone down it down (leaving it a bit bland in my opinion).
Object oriented confusion
There seemed to be a very sharp division between the people who understood the concept of object oriented thinking and those who didn't. In fact the concept is probably difficult to understand because of its very simplicity. Giles Askham made this point:
... the section on object orientation. I find myself in the position of understanding object oriented computer programming but reading a section explaining the concept to the lay person. It is therefore very difficult to try and read it with out bringing my own understanding to bare on the subject. It is difficult to know how fully anyone will grasp the concept from this section. I'm not even sure that a strong understanding is necessary, my hunch is though, that it is very important in order to fully understand the book.
When I started learning to program with lingo I read many articles posted on different web sites which attempted to explain the concepts involved in object oriented programming (including some of your own peter). As I think you have already stated in the book, the fundamental principles are very simple; conceptualising them however is not that simple, it takes a distillation of what you have read and what different pieces of code you have put into practice that finally leads to the eureka moment of full conceptual understanding.
Perhaps it was an inability to fully appreciate the concept of object oriented design strategies that led to the most contentious issue in the book: the appropriateness of managed teams in the environment of the Internet.
The main objections came from the people in the cafe who were in managerial roles, either in a conventional business structure or a contractor/sub contractor situation. They seemed to be under the impression that object oriented design was an alternative to the way they worked rather than a complement to it.
It seemed inconceivable to them that you can appoint somebody to carry out a function without imposing some form of editorial or quality control over the work you ask them to do. Yet, this is exactly what object oriented design is about.
The problem seems to be that the managers who are objecting to this are trying to see object oriented design in terms of their own managerial functions, But, it doesn't apply to them at all: it applies to the people who employ them or hire their services.
The manager who objects to the idea of object oriented design would probably be infuriated if their boss or client imposed a non expert, critical judgement on their work or didn't have enough trust in them to accept at face value the work they carried out to the best of their skills and abilities.
Most managers and contractors have experienced the problem of the boss or client who criticises their work at a level where they have little understanding of the criteria involved. In this situation, managers can see the logic of non interference and thus object oriented organisation makes sense to a manager from this perspective.
The paradigm shift needed to appreciate object oriented structures is to see it in this way. Bosses and clients must use object oriented design thinking to avoid the temptation to interfere with the work of the people they have put trust in and managers must use their conventional managerial skills to justify that trust.
In the bricks and mortar world, and even to some extent in the information world, it is possible for bosses and managers, clients and contractors to employ object oriented techniques in some situations and managerial techniques in other. But, in the highly complex environment of the Internet Ð which is heading increasingly towards specialisation Ð mixing the two strategies is becoming less and less efficient.
The prime movers have too many problems to cope with to be able to find the time to learn enough detail in the variety of niche areas that they have to employ. They are forced to trust others that they have to rely on to do a job without quality control or supervision. The managers, for their part, have more than enough to cope with in just trying keep up with the ever changing and expanding knowledge necessary to be proficient in their chosen managerial niche, to have time to consider the broader issues.
Object oriented design or managed team approaches are not choices as to the way to organise, They are different methods imposed according to what level of the system a person is operating in.
Certainly a leader can be both a strategist and a manager (although unusual), but, the function of management has no role in object oriented systems - only within the objects themselves (note: a managed team is considered to be an object in an object oriented environment and object oriented design isn't concerned with what happens inside objects). Object oriented system strategists on the other hand, have no place in management and it isn't even a necessary requirement for them to be a leader.
If the reader has clicked upon the understanding of just this one single concept, the reading of the book would have been worthwhile.